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Amos and Hosea: northern prophets of anger and love

Some of you may remember that I'm taking a Biblical History class this fall, part II of a two-semester course which began last spring. During the first semester, we looked at the time period between Abraham and the first Temple period; in this course we're starting there and moving forward, focusing in large part on the era of the prophets.

Each week, a different student presents material in class. Last week was my week to present, and my assigned subject were the prophets Amos and Hosea. My aim was to explore their two prophetic books through academic, devotional, source-critical, and feminist/gender studies lenses. 

I figure some of y'all might be interested in the presentation, so here it is! (And just so you know, I won't be offended if you glance at this and go "tl; dr" and move on. I'll be posting some Torah commentary later in the day which will be more accessible, I promise... :-)

Heschel on the role of the prophet

I want to start with a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, from his book The Prophets:

"The prophet is a person, not a microphone. He is endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not his own that accounts for his greatness -- but also with temperament, concert, character, and individuality."

Heschel also tells us that prophecy "may be described as exegesis of existence from a divine perspective." In other words, it was the prophet's job to offer a God's-eye view on the world. Heschel tells us that the prophet's "fundamental objective was to reconcile man and God."

Reconciling man and God wasn't always easy. Nowhere is this more clear than in the writings of Amos and Hosea.


Amos comes on the scene during the reign of Jeroboam II. The scene in question is the Northern Kingdom, a.k.a. Israel as opposed to Judah.

As Anderson [Bernhard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament] notes, the Deuteronomistic historians don't have much to say about Jeroboam; a scant 7 verses! But the prophetic books of Amos and Hosea tell us a great deal.

Under Jeroboam's rule, Israel reaches the summit of its material power. Heschel tells us there was "pride, plenty, and splendor in the land, elegance in the cities, and might in the palaces." In this case, although the rich are rich, the poor are poor; economic injustice is rampant; and prophets arise to speak truth to power.

Amos is a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees when God calls him to be a prophet. He was from Judah, but his speech was directed against the Kingdom in the North, against Samaria and Bethel and the rulers of the land.

Amos gives us, in Gottwald's terms [Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction], "a stunning array of judgment speeches, visions, hymnic doxologies, admonitions, laments, one brief narrative, and a concluding burst of promises of salvation." There are oracles against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah, and Israel -- which Gottwald notes may have been modeled after a liturgy found in the Egyptian Execration Texts.

(Those texts, "also referred to as Proscription Lists, are ancient Egyptian hieratic texts which contained the names of loathed people." Thus spake Wikipedia.)

Amos offers judgements against the northern kingdom, alongside a series of visions about judgement on the land. As a grand finale, there's a threat of total destruction. At the last minute, there's a turn in the text, and we get a promise of national restoration.

Amos doesn't hear the "still small voice" we read about last week in the story of Elijah: Amos seems to be hearing a voice that's thunderous and angry.

Amos condemns the absence of loyalty and the absence of pity, in other nations which behaved wrongly and also (or especially) in Israel, because, he says, the Israelites rejected God's Torah and didn't keep God's statutes. In an especially powerful passage Amos condemns those who wait for Shabbat to end in order to resume corrupt business dealings; that still rings painfully true today.

Gottwald dedicates some time to the question of whether Amos was a cult prophet. He seems to think the answer is no, and sees in Amos' use of cultic-style language a way of "turning the cult-originated hymnic language against the cult." Amos' prophetic identity comes into play a few times in his book; in 7:14 he says he was not a prophet nor son of a prophet but rather a dresser of sycamore trees, and later Amaziah rebukes him as a seer and Amos retorts that he is no seer but a navi. (In other words: he's not a seer of visions, but a prophet who speaks for Adonai.)

It's intriguing to me that redaction-critical studies "assign as much as half the work to later reworkings and supplements." (So says Gottwald.) Regardless of how much of the book can actually be attributed to Amos, of course, the power of the prophetic language still rings forth in a way that clearly speaks to us today.

Amos rails against the nations who behave in immoral ways, and against Israel who behaves in immoral ways. Like Elisha, he's concerned with the treatment of the poor; he knows that mistreatment of the poor is exactly what God does not want. One of the major messages I take away from Amos is that being "chosen" by God does not let us off the hook.

Indeed: being chosen puts us in an even more difficult position. "You only have I known / of all the families of the earth" -- we are the people God knows, so we're the people God gets most angry with for failing to live up to who we could be.

Bear in mind, of course, that the word we translate as "know" can also connote sexual congress. God "knows" us like a man knows his wife. That's going to be a big theme for Hosea.

Remarkably, despite all the anger Amos shows us on God's part, Amos also shows us God making teshuvah. God sees how small we are, and repents of the desire to destroy us. (Having just read Noach last week, that resonates.) The good news is conditional -- IF you will act appropriately, THEN God will take you back -- but there's definitely some good news here.


Hosea, son of Beeri, was a contemporary of Isaiah and of Amos, and is often characterized as the "prophet of love" (where Amos is called the "prophet of doom" or "judgement" -- though Heschel argues there's some chesed, lovingkindness, in both of them.)

A quick meta-note about the construction of the book of Hosea: it divides easily into two parts, 1) the narrative about the prophet's marriage and 2) judgment speeches about the sins of Israel which are compared with the sins of Hosea's wife.

Hosea was bitterly opposed to the alliance with Assyria in which king Menahem engaged, and he saw in Israel's alliance with other nations a kind of political promiscuity. In antiquity, interacting with other nations necessarily meant interacting with other nations' gods, a direct contravention of the monolatrist teachings of the day.

Hosea married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, who was unfaithful to him. At least, that's the plain story as it appears in the text. Medieval commentators including Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Maimonides treated the prophet's marriage "either as an allegory or as a dream," finding it disturbing that God would command a prophet to marry an adulterous woman. (I give over this teaching in the name of Yosef Green, whose article "Hosea and Gomer Revisited" I read in the Jewish Bible Quarterly.)

Of course, some modern scholars read Gomer more literally. Gottwald suggests she may have been a Baalite cult prostitute! And Anderson cites unnamed scholars who suggest that the autobiographical details show Hosea's relationship with another woman who was not his wife.

Here, again, I want to make the argument that regardless of the historical veracity of Hosea's marriage to Gomer, the text that comes out of his marriage is a scathing indictment of infidelity on many fronts.

Infidelity is a central metaphor in the book of Hosea -- specifically, how the Israelites have been unfaithful to God, just as Hosea's wife Gomer was unfaithful to him. Hosea understands God to be in shoes similar to his own: racked with sorrow and anger at the behavior of his beloved.

Marital fidelity, in Hosea's prophecy, is a stand-in for spiritual fidelity. When the Israelites dally with other gods, God feels as wounded and rejected as a human spouse might feel upon learning of his partner's acts of adultery. I'll talk more about this metaphor when I talk about gender in this text more fully.

According to Israelite law, a woman who committed adultery was to be expelled from the household. But Heschel notes that "God's way is higher than the legal way." In the second account of Hosea's marriage to Gomer, God tells Hosea to take his wandering wife back, "even as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods." (3:1)

Hosea takes the philandering Gomer into his home, but declares that she will have no relations either with her former lovers or with him. After a period of penance, Gomer -- again, symbol of Israel -- returns trembling to God and his goodness.

The first account of Hosea's marriage has been dated to the period prior to 743 B.C.E. Hosea was aware of the nation's inner corruption; as the story goes, he castigated the people, and warned them of imminent catastrophe by giving his children symbolic names (like "No Mercy" and "Not My People." Ouch!) But his exhortations bore no fruit, and in 721 the Assyrians laid waste to Samaria.

The second account of Hosea's marriage, usually understood to have been written after the Samarian incursion, emphasizes Israel's restoration. In this telling, the wife’s infidelities are mentioned only briefly; the focus instead is on the necessity for a period of penance, and the deep teshuvah that is possible if the Israelites will only wake up.

The God of Hosea oscillates between gevurah (boundaried strength) and chesed (lovingkindness). The relationship between God and Israel has been profoundly damaged by Israel's unfaithfulness, and God is justifiably angry, but beneath and beyond that fury remains divine love.

Relation to sacrifice

Both Amos and Hosea have something to say about the Israelites' relationship with sacrifice.

Amos writes:

I loathe, I spurn your festivals,
I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.
If you offer Me burnt offerings -- or your meal offerings --
I will not accept them; I will pay no heed
To your gifts of fatlings.
Spare Me the sound of your hymns
And let me not hear the music of your lutes
But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream.
Did you offer sacrifice and oblation to Me
Those forty years in the wilderness, O House of Israel?

(That's Amos 5:21-25.) And Hosea writes:

For I desire chesed, not sacrifice;
Knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings (6:6-7)

and later:

Take words with you
And return to Adonai.
Say to God: "Forgive all guilt
And accept what is good;
Instead of bulls we will pay
[The offering of] our lips." (14:2-3)

It's tempting to read lines like these as a critique of the sacrificial system, writ large. There's definitely tension between the notion of sacrifice, mediated by priests (and the whole priestly system of power) -- and the notion of prophecy, spoken by outsiders to the system of power.

Gender and Marriage

From the standpoint of a modern understanding of gender, it's easy to knock these guys, especially Hosea who uses so many marital metaphors, for a patriarchal viewpoint and blatant sexism.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky notes [in "The Wanton Wife of God," in In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth] that "Israel's gender system, which combines the social inequality of the sexes with an ideological construction of the essential sameness of men and women," makes it possible to imagine the relationship of God and Israel as the marriage of husband and wife."

Because Israelite marriage was so hierarchical, it was possible to imagine God as the ultimate powerful partner, and Israel as the wanton wife. Hosea shows us God repudiating Israel in what Frymer-Kensky calls "a nightmare of domination in a punitive relationship."

She acknowledges that it is not easy to pinpoint the origin of the metaphor, which is nowhere in Psalms so probably did not grow out of liturgical language. In general, Torah uses the covenantal metaphor, speaking in language of suzerainty rather than marriage.

That said: it's a great metaphor, because it was so powerful for the people then, and remains powerful -- if disturbing -- today. The metaphor reveals Israelite anxiety about unfettered womens' sexuality. Other prophets will go on to use this metaphor in increasingly disturbing ways: Jeremiah shows us the woman who has waited for her lovers by the side of the road and defiled the land with her debauchery, and Ezekiel speaks even more harshly to the sinful "sisters" of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Sodom.

Mary Joan Winn Leith, in her article "Verse and Reverse: the transformation of the woman, Isrel, in Hosea 1-3," [which you can find in a book called Gender and Difference] sees Israel's transformation from the wanton woman to a nation blessed with redemption as a mythic journey and rite of passage. In her understanding, Hosea is working with the mythic triad of exodus, wilderness, and redemption. He articulates God's accusation, punishment, and then restoration of the Israelite people.

Leith notes that Hosea feminizes the entire Israelite nation, playing on fears of woman as "Other." Hosea is arguing that Israel has become "precisely what it defines itself as not being" -- a nation which goes whoring after false gods. But the very wilderness that represents Israel's desolation comes also to represent the wide-open possibility of her redemption. Leith is right: this is great poetry.

Frymer-Kensky points out that "[t]he depiction of the wanton city-woman is the most truly negative portrayal of any female in the Bible." Consciously the anger of the prophets is directed against the people rather than against women, but it's hard for me as a woman in the 21st century not to see some seriously internalized gynophobia in this material. There's a sense here that the husband is angry because he can't control his wife, and he'll punish her in the most appalling of ways until she returns to him contrite. Seen through one set of lenses, it's grotesque.

Seen through another set of lenses, it's a powerful poetic depiction of the loving bond between God and Israel -- which, yes, is inevitably one with a power dynamic -- and since the book does end with God making teshuvah and repenting of God's rejection of us, I see a kind of hopefulness here, what Anderson calls an "optimism of grace."

The other really interesting thing for me in Leith's article is the notion that Hosea's text echoes the pattern of an initiation rite: Israel is cast into the desert and undergoes symbolic death and rebirth into new covenant with God. And because of that rebirth, because of the transformation which arises by the end of the book, Israel's feminization can be seen as something positive rather than negative. So maybe there's a way to read this text subversively, to highlight the hidden woman-positive thread buried beneath the overt gynophobia.

Clearly Hosea was not capable of empathizing with Gomer or imagining her point of view, and his text reflects that failure of imagination. My question is this: in reading this text today, can we find a way to rise above its problematic understandings of gender and power in order to connect with the love and teshuvah that I want to believe are at its heart?

At the end of chapter 14, Hosea shows us God's promise to take Israel back in love. Intriguingly, now that Israel is apparently behaving properly again, Israel is described in masculine language. Instead of the wanton wife, now Israel is the dutiful son. So, okay, the problematic gender stuff is still present -- but the message is a beautiful one, and I'll close with these lines from Hosea 14:

Generously will I take them back in love;
For My anger has turned away from them.
I will be to Israel like dew;
He shall blossom like the lily,
He shall strike root like a Lebanon tree.
His boughs shall spread out far,
His beauty shall be like the olive tree's,
His fragrance like that of Lebanon.
They who sit in his shade shall be revived:
They shall bring to life new grain,
They shall blossom like the vine;
His scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so!

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